This post was written by Betty.
Our modern story begins in January, 2004, with the arrival of Eloise and Colin at Selwick Hall in Sussex. Not only is Eloise delighted to have further access to the Selwick archives, but she finds her relationship has ratcheted up a notch when Colin says, “I had hoped you might stay, um, down the hall, with me…” Of course Eloise accepts in Eloise style and is happy to officially be Colin’s girlfriend; happier still since he introduces her as such when they arrive at the pub for dinner and are once again thrown together with snobby and snotty neighbor Joan Plowden-Plugge and her sister Sally. As Joan still harbors romantic ambitions regarding Colin, she is none too happy. Eloise overhears a conversation between Joan and Sally in the ladies room regarding Colin’s occupation and Eloise’s reaction when she finds out. It doesn’t help when the word “spies” is mentioned amid toilet flushes, and Eloise realizes she has never asked Colin what he does for a living – ta dah!
Meanwhile, back in 1803, it is Christmas Eve at Girdings Hall. Charlotte Lansdowne’s delightful grandmother, the Dowager Duchess of Dovedale, is hosting a house party to which she has invited a group of young men referred to as the “Eligibles” in hopes of finally marrying off Charlotte. Just as Charlotte and her friend Penelope Deveraux are exiting the home in search of greenery with the other young folks, who should ride up on his horse but long lost cousin Robert, the current Duke of Dovedale – knight in shining armor reference here. He and Charlotte haven’t seen each other for 12 years, but immediately feel an attachment from the past.
Having met Charlotte in previous books, we are now given some additional background into her life. She arrived at her grandmother’s at age 9, mourning her mother (a vicar’s daughter who had not been accepted by the Duchess), only to have her father fall ill and die. Being largely ignored, she found solace living in a world of books and imagination. Her loneliness grew after Robert’s departure since he was the only one who had been kind to her. In the world of the ton, she became friends with Henrietta Selwick, now Dorrington, and Penelope Deveraux.
Robert left Girdings Hall suddenly at age 15 before Charlotte’s father died. Through his thoughts we learn he was disgusted by his father’s lifestyle (gambling, drinking, brawling) as well as his premature, vulturistic plans to inherit the dukedom. Robert eventually joined a Royal Regiment and ended up in India. He has only returned to seek justice for a commanding officer shot in the back by some of his own men during a battle. He is searching for Arthur Wrothan who he believes was selling secrets to the enemy and engineered the assassination. One of Wrothan’s minions from India is Lord Frederick Staines who accompanied Wrothan back to England and is presently attending the Christmas house party. Robert thinks there is a connection to the Hellfire Club, run by Sir Francis Medmenham and is seeking to infiltrate this group. Cozying up to Medmenham, Robert finds him a despicable person who also expresses an interest in Charlotte. Not liking the kind of man he must pretend to be in order to gain acceptance into the Hellfire Club, Robert nonetheless, forges ahead to protect Charlotte as well as find those responsible for the murder of his friend. He and Charlotte share some reminiscences and an almost kiss as he cautions her to stay away from Medmenham. Later, when the men go out to perform a traditional ceremony around the Epiphany Tree, Robert finds out more information about the Hellfire Club from Lord Henry Innes. It seems in addition to Medmenham, Wrothan is a leader, and Robert is about to receive an invitation to the club.
Previous Pink acquaintances in addition to Penelope Deveraux and the Dowager Duchess of Dovedale, include Henrietta and Miles who arrive later on for the house party. Henrietta quizzes Charlotte about the “Eligibles” and also Robert. Miles is his usual adorable self, but doesn’t want to get involved with female chatter. Turnip Fitzhugh is also a guest and has a charming scene involving the Epiphany Tree, which was elaborated on in great detail in The Mischief of the Mistletoe. We are once again acquainted with the not so lovable likes of Martin Frobisher, Percy Ponsonby, Lord Henry Innes, and Lord Frederick Staines. Sir Francis Medmenham was introduced in Mischief of the Mistletoe and seems to lead this cast of dubious characters associated with the Hellfire Club. Much more to come on that later. However, Robert has discovered that this group of men, seemingly led and controlled by Medmenham, all wear a ruby ring etched with a lotus blossom.
New to the story, in addition to Robert, is his friend Lt. Tommy Fluellen, who has accompanied him from India and is immediately infatuated with Penelope Deveraux – woe be to Tommy!
As always, I am again impressed with the delightful literary references Lauren sprinkles throughout her books. On p.24 there is a scene in which the Dowager Duchess of Dovedale is about to leave the room after greeting Robert and meeting Tommy. She calls Tommy to attention and wants help into her litter. After Tommy hesitantly says, “It would be my honor?” the Duchess replies, “Correct answer. You may keep your head. For now.” I couldn’t help thinking of the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland. Later on when Robert and Charlotte are talking about memories from the past, he mentions Charlotte hunting unicorns with jam tarts. This also made me think of the Queen’s stolen tarts in Alice.
In our modern story, I thought it was interesting when Colin explained how Henrietta’s papers came to be in his family archives. The Dorrington line died out, and one of Henrietta’s great granddaughters married back into the Selwick side – p.59. What was your reaction to that? I’m also remembering a connection in Lauren’s That Summer.
Were there any references or passages that you particularly enjoyed?
How do you feel about Charlotte’s treatment by the Dowager Duchess and what effect, if any, has it had on Charlotte’s personality? And who would pick this group of “eligibles” for their granddaughter? In Penelope’s words on p.49, “They have no charm, no conversation, and most of them have no chins.” In addition, I believe it was stated that they were all in want of a dowry. Poor Charlotte.
So much happened in these chapters that could lend itself to discussion. There were a lot of revelations about the beginnings of the Hellfire Club in this first section. Robert hints at his father being involved in such a club on p.35, where we get more detail about how he felt about his father and further insight into why he would leave home at age fifteen. That coupled with Robert’s thoughts on p.5 where he wondered whether their quick arrival at Girdings when Charlotte’s father was ill and the ensuing arguments had hastened her father’s death, show his conflicting feelings. Even so, I am amazed that a fifteen year old would run off to establish himself in the world, but that shows us so much about the era. What are your impressions of Robert and Charlotte? I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts.